Tips on Counseling for Supervisors: Part 3 – The Counseling Memo

In the third and final article in the series, the author provides details on how to write an effective counseling memo.

This in the final part of a three part series on counseling for supervisors.

Part 1 provided introductory information about counseling, to include what counseling is, why counseling can be a useful tool for supervisors, and when to conduct a counseling session.

Part 2 provided thoughts on how to conduct a counseling session and who should attend.

This final Part provides my thoughts and suggestions on whether or not the meeting/discussion should be followed up in writing with a counseling memo or whatever name you prefer and some guidelines to follow if you choose to put it in writing.

The Counseling Memo – Should I Put it in Writing?

In some instances, you may conclude it is appropriate and necessary to follow-up the counseling session with something more concrete such as a memo.

As with the counseling session, there are no definitive rules that will lead you to THE correct decision. I’m reminded of the baseball umpire who was asked how he knows if a pitch is a strike or a ball. Seems like a logical question to me.

The umpire replied by saying what he sees coming towards the catcher’s mitt is a ball featuring a rubber or cork center wrapped in yarn and covered in the words of the Official Baseball Rules, with two strips of horsehide or cowhide, tightly bound together with 108 double stitches using 88 inches of waxed red thread. It is not a strike or a ball until I use my judgement and make a call. Only then is it a ball or a strike.

Not the answer the questioner was expecting, but the umpire did make an important point that applies to whether or not you will prepare something in writing. You are the umpire and you make the call as best you can.

Here are some thoughts you should consider before making a decision:

Is there a need to put it in writing?

Remember the reason you had the counseling session in the first place – your goal?   Something happened that you want to correct, whether it’s performance or conduct related.

Based on what you observed and learned during the meeting, to include how the employee responded, do you believe the problem has been resolved, your message has been received and understood, and the change you want will take place? If you answer yes, I would suggest as a general rule that a memo is not needed. Of course, there may be exceptions based on facts and circumstances.

When is a memo appropriate and necessary?

Generally, a memo may be both appropriate and necessary when 1) earlier counseling did not solve the problem. It just didn’t work; 2) you do not have confidence that the employee will improve behavior or performance without further encouragement; 3) the seriousness of the situation requires documentation that the session was held; or 4) a multi-part plan for improvement was discussed during the session and the memo serves as written confirmation and a reminder of the plan.

If at the end of a counseling session you know a counseling memo will be prepared, you should tell the employee before ending the meeting. Giving the employee advance notice is simply the right thing to do. Even though the employee might view the advance notice as bad news, it’s not as bad as being surprised with a memo you did not expect.

When a counseling memo is used, it should be prepared and presented in a timely manner, generally within no more than several days. Otherwise, both you and the employee are likely to forget important aspects of the discussion.

Additionally, inasmuch as your purpose in sending the memo is to reinforce understandings reached during the session, it is widely accepted that such learning takes place more effectively when the reinforcement (the memo) is close to the initial event.

Writing the Counseling Memo

In several ways, writing a counseling memo is not unlike conducting the session itself.

First, the memo should be a summary of the counseling session that should be addressed and delivered (or sent) to the employee.

Second, the memo should be similar in tone to the session. It should not be punitive. In this respect, it should not be characterized as a disciplinary notice or letter of reprimand. It is neither.

When writing the memo, the following guidelines should be followed:

Write the memo to the employee

This is a communication between you and the employee. There should be no need to send copies to others. Doing so is likely to raise the bar of conflict and work against your underlying goal.

Be concise and clear

Avoid general language such as “earlier in the month you used unfriendly language when handling a customer problem.” Rather, try something like, “On June 6, 2017 around 3 p.m. you were talking on the phone with one of your customers, Mr. Ed Conners, the Director of Logistics. During our counseling session you agreed that you were provoked by Mr. Conner’s inability to comprehend your guidance regarding shipping containers and told him ‘he was dumber than a monkey.’”

Stay On Topic

The memo is a summary of your counseling session. Do not include other matters in the memo that were not discussed during the session.

Include the following sections:

  • A statement of the reason for and the date, time and place of the meeting. Be as complete as possible in describing the problem.
  • The employee’s response to your concerns. This is important as it demonstrates you were actually listening during the session.
  • The manner in which the employee will seek to improve.
  • Provisions for follow-up discussions.

I strongly recommend you not characterize the memo as discipline or as a penalty. Also, the tone of the memo should be supportive and factual.

End of Part 3

As I said earlier, “Employee counseling is a way to address concerns about performance or work related behaviors in a positive and constructive manner if done correctly.”

If your ship is drifting a little off course, you most likely will make a little adjustment to get back on course to get your destination. The same logic applies at the work place. If you are aware of a behavioral or performance problem, it is your responsibility to address it. Don’t stand back and let it grow into a major problem or spend time talking to everyone around you other than the employee about the problem. Talk to the employee and do it quickly.

All opinions expressed in this series are mine only and do not reflect those of FedSmith, any clients, or other person I know. If you want to contact me my email address is